Last October the area immediately in front of the house was excavated to repair a rapidly widening sink hole.
There used to be a large deck on the front of the house, which was in violation of county building codes, because the original builder constructed it directly over the top of a septic tank (yes, this is the same builder that buried the stumps that caused the sink hole — words fail me). We completely removed the deck to facilitate the sink hole repair last fall, and also to improve the view from the living room windows, as the deck railing obstructed the view.
The damage in the front yard from the sink hole was extensive, but once the ‘root cause’ was determined, it was actually a relatively easy repair. For a while it looked suspiciously as if we were attempting to install an olympic sized swimming pool between the house and the workshop, but once the area was back-filled with soil again, and compacted, we were left with a blank slate.
Although fall and winter is the best time to plant a native garden in this area, we chose to wait through the winter months to be sure that the ground was truly stable, as some minor settling after the rains was to be expected.
We’re happy to see the soils are no longer sinking in this area, and are now anxious to convert our moonscape in front of the house into something more aesthetically pleasing, and hopefully soon we can also re-pave the driveway.
As next week is California Native Plant Week, this seemed like a perfect excuse to get moving with formulating a plan!
With the deck gone, we were left with an empty 18×30 foot area between the driveway and the house. I can’t believe I’m showing you my weeds. As the deck can’t be replaced, and the area can’t be paved in order to preserve access to the septic tank, the only logical choice was to plant this area.
This project will be the first phase of the revamp of the entire front garden area. For this project we’re just focusing on the septic tank area for now, but we’ll tackle the leach field area later this year as well.
Planting this area, however, is not as straightforward as it may seem. Gardening in the vicinity of a septic system isn’t easy. The typical default solution for many is to plant lawn grass, as the roots from lawn grasses are shallow, and will not risk interfering with the function of the septic system. However, even lawn grasses aren’t always ideal for this application, especially if they require significant irrigation, as it’s important not to saturate the soils over the tank, or the leach field.
The idea of a slab of green grass directly in front of the house did absolutely nothing to inspire or motivate either one of us. Instead, we wanted to plant this area with a more diverse collection of plants, and bring some of the pollinators, and birds, closer into view of the house.
As we’d excavated 10-12 feet down to the right of the tank during the sink hole repair, we now know there are no pipes, or structures below grade in that half of the garden, which does provide us more flexibility in planting that area.
The left side however we have to consider both future tank access, and soil depth in that part of the garden.
This is a traditional concrete tank, with two access lids, both of which need to be accessible for maintenance. The soil depth in this area is approximately 16 inches down to the top of the tank.
While selecting plants to grow in this area we had to consider a few things:
- Root depth of any plants over or near the tank
- Deer resistance
- Drought tolerance
- Sun tolerance
- The need to move/remove plants for tank maintenance
- Preserving views from the windows
- Providing structure in the garden in the winter months
This garden area faces southwest, and gets lots of sun in the summer. It’s exposed to heavy deer browsing pressure, and situated immediately in front of the main living area windows.
Although we can’t see the ocean from here, we do have views of the surrounding woodland that we’d like to preserve, and not obscure, so ideally plants need be below 6 feet in height.
Due to the slope downward in front of the house, the house foundation is an exposed, relatively tall grey slab of concrete, and not particularly pleasing to look at. In the future we’d like to face the exposed concrete in stone, but for now we’d be content to obscure at least parts of it with plants.
So here’s the proposed plan thus far (always subject to change of course).
As this garden bed is quite large, for the area directly over the tank we’ve decided to try growing a few native deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens). Growing to about 3ft x 3ft, the grass will provide some height, and movement, but most importantly, once established, it needs minimal irrigation, and its root depth should not exceed that of the soil over the tank.
Forward of the deer grass, as I have some growing in the greenhouse at the moment, we’ll plant some showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). This should help to guarantee at least a few butterflies will visit this part of the garden in summer.
Moving forward toward the driveway, some low growing native buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum ‘Shasta sulfur’) to provide a splash of yellow, and some additional pollinator-friendly blooms.
Because of the slope, the front edge of the garden is right at driveway level. We’ve decided to try using some tougher, low-growing, shallow-rooted woody perennials along this edge, clear of the tank. Ceanothus gloriosus ‘Heart’s Desire’ is a somewhat prickly low-growing groundcover Ceanthothus, and reportedly one of the more deer resistant (we’ll have to see if that’s true here).
The rest of the edge we’re trying the Arctostaphylos hybrid ‘Emerald Carpet’. The idea here is we’d like to grow a 12-18″ evergreen edge along the transition to the driveway. Both the Arctostaphylos, and Ceanothus, nectar laden blooms, should entice the bees in early spring.
For height, and color, two of my favorite native sages will be added, Salvia clevelandii ‘Pozo Blue’, and ‘Allen Chickering’.
Allen has proven to be a very robust, and prolific sage here, so I’m always happy to plant more, as it’s a carefree plant. These Salvias are also generally ignored by our deer, and will be very aromatic, especially after a rain.
Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) should help to extend the period of purple blooms in this part of the garden after the sages have faded.
However, these plants are usually pruned hard at the end of the season, and won’t provide any winter structure in this bed, so tucking it in front of the Ceanothus will hopefully prevent a ‘hole’ in the garden during the winter months. Its pollinator value, and deer resistance, make it worth reserving a space for though.
So far we’ve mostly planted Lavendula x intermedia ‘Provence’ in the gardens, both for its culinary value, and for future soap-making efforts. I love the unique look of Lavendula ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’ though. It has beautiful silvery foliage, and is a prolific bloomer.
This lavender is the only non-native plant currently on the plan for this bed, but I don’t mind augmenting a native garden with water-wise, well-behaved non-native plantings, especially if they help to extend bloom periods, and increase diversity in the garden.
The pollinators love it, the deer ignore it, and it will provide some foliage interest in the front of the bed. Oh, and the aroma is wonderful too!
The plant I think we’re taking the greatest gamble on in this part of the garden is Ceanothus ‘Wheeler Canyon’ in the back right corner of this bed. The deer may well be tempted to nibble on this variety, we’ll have to wait and see. Generally speaking, the larger-leaved Ceanothus are more likely to be sampled by the deer, including the Ceanothus thyrsiflorus that is endemic to the property.
Warty leaved varieties like ‘Dark Star’, or ‘Julia Phelps’, or the the prickly ’Heart’s Desire’ tend to be more deer resistant. We’re hoping we can cheat a little, and with little else of interest to the deer in this bed, we hope they don’t notice these few hiding in the back, but if they do, we can always try planting something else.
We were looking for some substantial shrubs for this back corner, both to help obscure the foundation from the driveway, and to provide some height, but we didn’t want a variety of Ceanothus that would exceed much more than 6ft in height to preserve the views from the windows. This cultivar has rich blue-purple colored flowers, and typically grows 4-6 feet. The question is, will the deer notice?
The sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus) we’re also hoping will do well in this bed. It grows wild elsewhere on the property, and survives, with no supplemental irrigation up near the apiary.
The flowers are striking from a distance, although the shrubs themselves sometimes look a little ragged. We’re curious to see, with just a touch of occasional water, if they look better in a more cultivated section of native garden.
To make any pollinator friendly garden complete, we’ve also decided to add a water feature to this bed. We’ve chosen a pondless fountain, primarily because the raccoons tend to foul exposed water features here, and we don’t want to encourage that behavior.
We were limited on placement due to the position of the septic tank, but offset to the right of the bed, and far enough forward that we can see it from the bay window above, we hope this Sonoma Stone pondless fountain will prove to be a hit with both the birds and the bees.
Bees need water, especially during the summer months. As the water will lightly skim the surface of the rock, and the rock face is uneven, there should be plenty of areas for the bees to land to sip water. With no exposed deep water, it should also prevent the bees from accidentally drowning.
The base will be surrounded with Lodi stone, and extended into a gravel wash through the center of the garden bed.
The first truck load of soil was delivered yesterday morning, along with the components for the fountain, so this weekend we start planting!
Yesterday, I started by weeding this area, and then excavating down to locate both access hatches for the septic. The hatches were marked out, and we’ll randomly add some additional Sonoma field stones to balance out the fountain, and to help us locate the septic hatches in the future.
With the septic access located, the area was backfilled, and I’m now in the process of distributing the first load of top soil, no doubt with more to come.
As the rain began to move in last night, I started to position, and level, the 30 gallon basin that will sit under the fountain rock.
I was quickly rained out, but hopefully with the warm weather slated for the weekend, we’ll finish installing the fountain this weekend. Although I’m not looking forward to hoisting this enormous rock into position.
Connecting the pump might be tricky too!
However, I’m hoping that once we’re done we’ll transform our ragged patch of weeds in front of the house…
…into something we actually want to come home to! We’ll post our progress, soon…